Report: Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page

Update: The report was covered in E&E News (subscription), Mother Jones, Think Progress and DeSmogBlog. Click-through for more on our groundbreaking research on fossil fuel-funded groups in the media.

Fossil fuel-funded front groups, commonly referred to as “think tanks” or “institutes”, have been secretly influencing the media and the public on energy issues by moving pro-fossil fuel messaging.

These groups, and their proponents, have been quoted on average every other day for the past five years in 60 of the largest mainstream newspapers and publications. Despite having received millions of dollars from fossil fuel interests, such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, these groups’ financial ties to the fossil fuel industry are rarely mentioned.

The Checks and Balances Project’s report, “Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page,” uncovered the extent of this deception by focusing on the 10 most prominent fossil fuel front groups’ traction in 58 of the largest daily newspapers, the Associated Press and Politico. This analysis does not include mentions in broadcast, radio or online publications for these 10 advocacy groups.  As a result, this report only scratches the surface on these fossil fuel-funded groups’ influence on the energy debate.

Fossil fuel-funded advocacy groups’ failure to divulge their ties to the fossil fuel industry in one story is regrettable, but doing it in over 1,000 stories appears to be planned deception.

Here is a summary of the report findings (download a PDF of the report here):

1. Fossil fuel interests have provided at least $16.5 million to 10 organizations from 2006-2010.
Organizational Recipients of Funding

2. Fossil fuel-funded organizations used targeted, focused messaging to support fossil energy sources and attack clean energy.

Media Mentions by Topic

3. Within a five-year period, these groups and their personnel have been mentioned on energy issues at least 1,010 times in major daily newspapers, averaging four mentions a week – or more than once every other day.

Number of Energy Issue Placements for Each Organization 2007-2011
4. Media descriptions of these organizations (beyond their name) were not included in a majority of mentions. If described, descriptions typically focused on the organizations’ function (e.g., “think tank”) or location (e.g., “DC-based”), not their motivation. Almost all of the rare descriptions of motivation used self-identified ideology (i.e., “conservative,” “free market” or “libertarian”), not their financial ties to fossil fuel interests.

How Organizations Are Described

5. Media outlets routinely omitted any mention of the financial ties between the 10 organizations and the fossil fuel interests providing funding. The link between fossil fuel funders and organizations was described only 6% of the time.

Major Metropolitan Dailies with No Mention
6. These organizations received heavier coverage in influential newspapers that help shape the national agenda, including Politico, The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times.Appearances in National Newspapers

7. Despite being labeled as “free market” or “libertarian,” these organizations focus their criticism almost exclusively on clean energy policy investments. They make few – if any – references to government support for fossil fuels.

These findings will hopefully encourage more disclosure in our nation’s top media outlets. The Checks & Balances Project suggests a simple question to ask pundits and experts being quoted, cited or published in the media: “Do you get money, directly or indirectly, from interests that stand to benefit from what you are saying?”

With more transparency, members of the American public will know when an opinion may be biased and will be better informed on these critical questions about our energy future.

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